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Clerical secrets

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky (bio - articles - email) | Oct 29, 2019

Maybe this secret should not be disclosed, but a priest recites this prayer before he receives Holy Communion: “May the receiving of your Body and Blood, Lord Jesus Christ, not bring me to judgment and condemnation….” The priest begs God to spare him from an unworthy or sacrilegious Communion. Although the graces of Holy Orders are abundant, the clergy squanders God’s grace with the same reckless abandon as the ordinary Catholic.

The general unworthiness of the clergy is evident from the non-stop circus we see in various sectors of the Church. The recent pagan goddess drama in the Vatican, for example, is at once hilarious and pathetic. We now have apologies for the apologies. The spectacle is bizarrely fitting. After all, the Church built Saint Peter Basilica on pagan circus grounds, where the Romans crucified the first among the Apostles.

No schadenfreude from the laity, please. Lest we forget, in the Gospels the Pharisees are laymen. The non-ordained shouldn’t presume their holiness necessarily exceeds that of their priests, some of whom may be repentant publicans. From a Gospel perspective, there is little incentive to enter into a “holier than thou” contest.

According to God’s plan, priests win, even when they lose. They are custodians of the spigots of grace. Regardless of a priest’s sanctity, his words of absolution forgive sins, and Christ becomes present on our altars with the words of Consecration. The Church relies on apostolic succession and the real graces of the Sacraments more than individual sanctity to prevent the gates of hell from prevailing. The question has always been whether we will act on the divine gifts we receive.

Another concern—especially in our day—is whether the priest has the basic decency to allow the sacred texts and gestures of the liturgy to speak without obstruction through him. An honorable priest does not claim the Sacred Liturgy as a playpen to feed his narcissism, or allow a congregation with attention deficit disorder to insert various forms of entertainment to soothe boredom. Stick to the liturgical rules, Father.

In any case, the non-ordained members of the Church may be relieved that the laity doesn’t have a monopoly on dishonesty, selfishness, power grabs, and all the rest. Indeed, over the centuries, the Catholic hierarchy has demonstrated an exceptional degree of interest in political intrigues.

There is an entertaining Vatican story from the early 20th Century that sounds authentic. Pope Saint Pius X’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Merry del Val, dissuaded Pius X from naming Archbishop Giacomo della Chiesa of Bologna as a cardinal. The Secretary of State was successful for a time. But the Pope relented, and three months after della Chiesa received his red hat, Pius X died. Merry del Val was the odds-on favorite to succeed him in the papacy.

But Cardinal del Val unexpectedly lost the election and the conclave elected his rival, Cardinal della Chiesa, as the successor of Peter, Pope Benedict XV. The story goes, when del Val came forward to make the customary act of ecclesiastical deference, Benedict XV leaned forward and quoted Psalm 118, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Gracious in defeat, del Val replied with words taken from the same Psalm: “By the Lord has this been done, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

In the years that followed, perhaps as a result of his humiliation, del Val popularized the “Litany of Humility.” It’s a very dangerous prayer. When recited with the faintest of fervency, we can count on God’s quick response.

Here are a few excerpts from the prayer:

From the desire of being esteemed,

Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the desire of being loved,

Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the desire of being honored,

Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the desire of being praised,

Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the desire of being preferred to others,

Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the desire of being approved,

Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the fear of being despised,

Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the fear of being ridiculed,

Deliver me, O Jesus.

Had enough?

There is an interesting footnote to the story. In personal correspondence, C.S. Lewis attributed the composition of the prayer to Cardinal Merry del Val. Later, an Opus Dei priest included it in his Handbook of Prayers and attributed it to “Card. Merry del Val.” But Merry del Val was not the author of the prayer. An anonymous priest published the “Litany to Obtain Holy Humility“ in 1867, although later editors made slight revisions. The humbled Cardinal, rejected by a papal Conclave, used a lesser-known, but already published prayer. History seems to have lost the name of the original author of the Litany of Humility. In his (or her?) self-abnegation, God answered his prayers.

The number of saints certainly exceeds the number declared by the Church. Furthermore, many obscure, humble, and overlooked holy souls may have attained greater sanctity than those canonized. Maybe we know a few in our families. But we need to face the facts of our weakness and our need for God’s grace and forgiveness.

We need the Sacraments from priests whose state of soul is known to God alone.

So there’s hope for sinners like you and me. “[F]or every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14) There’s nothing secret about that.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines.
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  • Posted by: cvm46470 - Oct. 30, 2019 11:31 PM ET USA

    Thank you Fr. Pokorsky for the reminder to focus on what's really important - and helping me smile in these crazy times...please keep writing!